Dems want to make airlines pay up for canceled flights

And Bernie wants the price to be a cool $55,000 per passenger, he said Wednesday.

DES MOINES, IA  - FEBRUARY 04: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks t...
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Even under the absolute best, platonic ideal circumstances, air travel sucks. It sucks to schlep to an airport and stand in line and take off your shoes and run to the gate and sit around for an hour because you didn’t time everything correctly and then get crammed into a speeding metal tube full of recycled air and strangers at 30,000 feet. And rarely, if ever, do most people fly under the absolute best, platonic ideal circumstances — especially lately, when flights are being canceled left and right thanks to a nexus of understaffed airlines, increasingly volatile weather, and an industry still reeling from the (ongoing) coronavirus pandemic. Put simply: If you’re flying somewhere this summer, be prepared to have a pretty bad time.

There is, however, a growing chorus among Democratic lawmakers to do something to alleviate the cascading spate of abrupt flight delays and cancellations. The plan? Make the airlines pay.

On Wednesday, both Sen. Bernie Sanders and Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman released plans to fine airlines thousands of dollars per passenger for every canceled flight, if the airline knew ahead of time it would be understaffed and unable to fly. The proposal from Fetterman, who is currently Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, is $27,500 per passenger, while Sanders’s is a whopping $55,000 for each person whose flight was canceled due to foreseen understaffing.

As both Fetterman and Sanders note, this is hardly a new idea: In 2009, as part of a broader suite of “aviation consumer protections,” then-President Barack Obama enacted a “tarmac” rule forcing airlines to pay when passengers were stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours. And, as both Democrats also point out, the need for further protections comes as airlines are beginning to see flights fill up once more after being bailed out during the coronavirus pandemic by government funds.

“Let’s be clear. During the pandemic, when air travel came to a near halt, U.S. taxpayers came to the rescue and gave $54 billion to the airline industry,” Sanders explained in a press release accompanying a copy of the letter he sent to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg outlining his plan, which includes refunds and fines for not only cancellations but delays as well. “The top eight airlines alone received nearly $50 billion in taxpayer assistance from the federal government. Given all of the generous taxpayer support that has been provided to the airline industry, all of us have a responsibility to make sure that passengers and crew members are treated with respect, not contempt.”

In an email regarding his proposal, Fetterman struck a similar note, saying “government has a responsibility to hold these airlines accountable. Taxpayers saved them, and now it’s their turn to hold up their end of the deal.”

While Buttigieg has not publicly responded to either proposal, he did acknowledge the increasingly fraught airline snarls and delays Wednesday, sharing a list of passenger “rights” for people planning to fly ahead of the coming 4th of July holiday weekend.